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History & Background

The Republic of Chile is to the north of Peru, to the northeast with Bolivia, to the east with Argentina (separated by the Andes that forms a natural border), and to the west with the Pacific Ocean. Its geographical location offers a variety of climates. A small area of the extreme north of the country is semi-tropical, immediately followed to the south by a harsh desert extension (Atacama Desert), considered one of the most arid areas of the planet. Benjamin Subercaseaux, national writer and scholar, described the topographic territory as Chile o una Loca Geografía (Chile, a Geographic Extravaganza), in his book of the same title, referring to its vast variation of climates.

The country occupies an area of 756,950 square kilometers that includes island possessions (292,132 square miles) and 1,250,000 square kilometers (482,628 square miles) of claimed sovereignty of Chilean Antarctic territory, located between 53 and 90 longitudinal degrees West of Greenwich. The latter is mainly populated by military personnel and few civilian families, 1,200 individuals live year round in four permanent bases. Twelve summer bases open for a period of 4 months where national and international scientists, maintenance, and logistic support personnel triplicate its population. Additionally, two laboratories, one of cosmic radiation and one of marine sciences occupy the Chilean Antarctic zone.

Industry/manufacturing contributes 20.8 percent of the country's labor force. During the last twenty years, Chile has promoted exportations of non traditional products, processed and canned food, and manufactured goods, and has expanded the markets of its most traditional ones (wine and iron steel among others.) More recently, tourism has been stimulated as another income source to the country increasing the national gross domestic product.

Chile is a republic where the president is democratically elected by direct vote. The official language is Spanish; Chileans, though, refer to it as Castellano (Castilian.)

Chile's population in the year 2000 was 15,153,797 people. Its major population concentration is found in the capital city, Santiago (5,400,000 people). The national population density is 52 persons per square mile.

In terms of religion, Chileans who declare to be Roman Catholic are 76.6 percent, protestant 13.2, atheist 7 percent, and 4.2 percent other (including Jewish, Muslim, and Orthodox.)

According to the 1992 national census, Chileans who declared to be mestizo (European and native Indian mix) were 66 percent of the population, European descent 25 percent, Indigenous 7 percent, and other 2 percent. As compared to other regions in the Americas, slavery from Africa was scarce, particularly because plantations were not developed due to the climate and because importing slaves was not profitable considering the long distance to sail. For this reason, slavery was limited to few local natives and was abolished during the early years of the country's independence.

Currently, these are the main native ethnic groups that survived the Spanish conquest. The Aymara is a group that populates the northernmost geographical area of Chile, corresponding to the Altiplane, a highland territory shared by Chile, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador located in the Andean zone. The Pascuense is a Polynesian group that inhabits the Rapa Nui/Isla de Pascua (Eastern Island), located across the Chilean coast that was annexed to Chile in 1888. The Mapuches, also called Araucanians, are the most numerous ethnic group with approximately 500,000 members who originally concentrated in the southern territory of the country.

Of all groups, the most racially intact is the Eastern Islanders, approximately 3,800 kilometers west away from the coast of Chile; foreign access is difficult so its mixture is rare. Mapuches (Men of land) are recognized as the most significant numeric minority of the country.

As in most territories in the Americas, Spanish exterminated natives in pursuit of land claimed in name of the crown. In a more contemporary context, assimilation, on the other hand, including formal education, military service, and other national activities have not permitted the maintenance of traditions acculturating aboriginal groups, in some cases to their extinction.

As the Chilean territory expanded to the south, few nationals demonstrated interest to inhabit the areas of hostile climate. Due to this reason, the Chilean government invited Italians and Germans to populate a vast region of the country. Germans created a number of prosperous cities, including Valdivia, Puerto Montt, and Puerto Varas, as a result of this colonization. Apart from developing agriculture, they also developed new industries in the area and incorporated their traditions to the national culture. They expanded the territory by settling with their families in inhospitable zones for Chileans, founding Osorno and Punta Arenas. Despite the government efforts, few immigrants came to Chile compared to other countries in the Americas such as Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Brazil. The Spanish tradition and culture predominated up to after the independence when French enlightenment and encyclopedist philosophies captivated Chilean founder fathers.

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